Painting Freedom


The Government College of Art in Calcutta was ‘established by a benevolent government for the purpose of revealing to the Indians the superiority of European art’, in the second half of the 19th century. At the dawn of the 20th century, Indian artists at the college started questioning ‘What is modern Indian art’? Academic art, introduced by the British Raj, was challenged by the nationalist art movement of the Bengal School of painting, led by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) and his disciples, which dominated the Indian art scene in the first decades of the 20th century.

To provide a relative broad coverage of the Bengal School, this exhibition consists of the traditional Kalighat paintings and the Early Bengal oils from the beginning of the 20th century that served as inspiration, the major Bengal school artists, the academic artists, and the avant-garde artists. At the turn of the 19th century, in response to the art schools set up by the British in the mid-19th century in India – Madras in 1850 and Calcutta in 1854 – Indian artists who were against this foreign, Western style desired to create new Indian art, searching India’s past for inspiration.

Calcutta had been the seat of the colonial government until 1912, but in December 2011, King George V had proclaimed the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi at the Imperial Durbar. It was at the Government School of Art in Calcutta that artists first rejected the Western-orientated syllabus and began to encourage students to produce art that was self-consciously Indian – and modern. At the same time, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and his nephew Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) were rediscovering Ajanta’s wall-paintings, as well as traditional Rajput and Mughal miniatures. Tagore’s followers formed a group that came to be called the Bengal School, finding an alternative sense of scale in the precolonial traditions of India.

Bengal had emerged as an epicentre of cultural agitation that, among other things, initiated a concerted move away from formal European aesthetic ideals. The search for a national visual identity that was both historically rooted in the subcontinent and modern in its outlook came into fruition at the newly formed Bengal School. It sought to reject the aesthetic sensibilities of European Academic painting and replace it with cultural frames of reference, which its members considered authentically Indian. Adding to the complexity of this change, Bengal was in the throws of being divided. The first Partition of Bengal (1905) was a territorial reorganisation of the Bengal Presidency implemented by the authorities of the British Raj. This change separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas – it also brought the region to the brink of rebellion.

Some artists reacted by adopting the Swadeshi ideology and movement that had grown out of the events of the first partition. The movement called for national independence, a boycott of imported goods, to undo the partition of Bengal, and to help Indian-based companies to increase their trade and profit. Gandhi importantly used this idea of self-reliance to incapacitate the trade in foreign goods and urge India to freedom. Postcolonial India still saw Calcutta as a crucial intellectual centre in India, in which art was integrated within a vibrant, political, literary, and theatre scene. Around 1915, other academics and artists all over India also began rethinking art in response to the influences of the Bengal School. They turned against the Western-style paintings promoted by the British art schools – and artists such as Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), whose paintings often portrayed Hindu mythological scenes in the Western academic tradition.

In 1901, in Bolpur, the establishment of Kala Bhavana (now the Institute of Fine Arts) at Santiniketan under Rabindranath Tagore brought these new and different ideals and conceptions of both art and the nation under one roof. Now classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it began as a residential school and centre for art, based on ancient Indian traditions and a vision of the unity of humanity transcending religious and cultural boundaries. A ‘world university’ was then established at Santiniketan in 1921, which recognised the unity of humanity or ‘Visva Bharati’. Distinct from the prevailing British colonial architectural of the early 20th century and of European modernism, Santiniketan envisioned a pan-Asian modernity, drawing on ancient, medieval, and folk traditions from across the region. It was also conceived as an experimental settlement in education and communal life in a deliberately rural setting. The community was in many ways meant to represent a uniquely Indian example of a ‘total work of art’, where life, learning, work and art along with the local and the global intertwined seamlessly.

The buildings and open spaces constituted a testimony to ideas of environmental art and educational reform where progressive education and visual art are intertwined with architecture and the landscape: with the Ashram, Uttarayan, and Kala-Bhavana areas forming the main sites of focus. Santiniketan remains the prime example of the emergence of post-colonial centres of cultural, philosophical, and spiritual exploration in the early 20th century in south Asia. To recognise its importance, the Visva-Bharati University was given the status of a central university in 1951 by an act of parliament.

In the 1920s, the ideas and practice of Indian art added further complexity to this ideology with the emergence of a triangular standoff between the orientalists of the Bengal School: Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganen-dranath Tagore (1867-1938), Sunayani Devi (1875-1962), Nandalal Bose (1882-1966); the academic artists Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), Atul Bose (1898-1977); and the avant-garde artists Rabindranath Tagore, and Jamini Roy (1887-1972). Despite the institutional power of the orientalists, some of the most successful modern Indian artists to emerge from Bengal pre-independence were those who finally broke away from the traditional Bengal School: Hemendranath Mazumdar, Jamini Roy, and Rabindranath Tagore.

As the influence of the Bengal School began to recede, the painters associated with it introduced little to no alterations to their style and soon began facing the same problems as the traditions to which they initially were responding themselves. Nandalal Bose’s appointment at Kala Bhavana in 1922, following his exit from the Indian Society of Oriental Art, marked a final and decisive break from the Bengal School’s dual approach and its mission of formulating universal standards of ‘Indianness’. However, the legacy of the Bengal School, in terms of its aesthetic and technical contributions, if not its ideological foundations, still lives on in the Government College of Art and in Kala Bhavana.

The London exhibition explores this emergence of Indian modern art as a quest for cultural independence and explores the vital role that Bengal played in the emergence of Indian modern art and how a nationalist agenda in art attempted to dominate the discourse. Yet the three most successful of the artists Mazumdar, Roy, and Rabindranath Tagore, whose appeal and popularity continues today, each rejected in their own way an explicit call to rediscover the Indian art of the past and instead fashioned their own path, choosing a more universal language of art that borrowed from Western academic art, Indian folk traditions, and contemporary expressionism. In this way, the exhibition hopes to demonstrate the observation made by the artist Howard Hodgkin: ‘There is a special relationship between the identities of “modern” and “Indian”, which is uniquely tied to the historical moment’.

Until 2 June, 2024, Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London,